This story is one in a series of stories marking the two-year anniversary of the COVID-19 shutdown. The full package is here.
One of the most important jobs of theatre journalism—some would say its central, even only, job—is to bear witness to and commemorate a fundamentally ephemeral medium in words and pictures. That’s plenty true in normal times, but this documentary mission has become especially urgent in a time of deep uncertainty and constant reshuffling due to an airborne virus, which has disproportionally encroached on art forms and social practices that rely on appointment gathering and shared (indoor) space.
It’s also been overwhelming, frankly, to parse the changing plans of a far-flung theatre field that even in normal times offered us more than enough to keep track of. But as we reach the terrible two-year anniversary of the COVID-19 lockdown from which we’ve been emerging fitfully since last summer, we wanted to reflect this transitional time with a look back at some of the shows whose fates got tossed around by the pandemic, as well as a look ahead at their prospects, and by extension the prospects of the art form they’re part of.
In this project of memory and reclamation, we were helped immeasurably by 3Views, which has created a kind of online reluiqary of foreshortened or cancelled plays. We highly recommend a deep dive into their invaluable archives. And we’re building on reams of reporting on the field’s lurching progress through these 24 months of pandemic and protest, from its first weeks to its first summer of regrouping to its one-year anniversary last March.
Without further ado, once more into the breach.
A ‘Woolf’ That Roared, Then Crumbled
In the cramped men’s bathroom of Broadway’s Booth Theatre, a long line inched slowly forward. Not for the urinals as usual but for the sinks, as patrons fastidiously washed their hands for as close to 30 seconds as they could manage. “I’ve started actually washing my hands now,” a finely suited gentleman chortled to the line.
This was March 9th 2020, three days prior to Broadway’s shutdown in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. A nervous crowd had nonetheless turned out for Joe Mantello’s starry revival of Edward Albee’s seminal masterpiece Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?, featuring Laurie Metcalf, Rupert Everett, Russell Tovey and Patsy Ferran. The production would ultimately manage nine previews before the industry shutdown. A few weeks later, the run was canceled entirely due to cast scheduling conflicts.
Mantello’s harsh, steely revival was a deliberately punishing evening. Over nearly three hours, Metcalf and Everett ruthlessly pounded each other into submission, the balance of power between the two constantly shifting. Tovey and Ferran were merely the couple’s playthings, cruelly toyed with and then casually tossed away. This Virigina Woolf did not reinvent the wheel, but it was a remarkably pitiless and highly effective production.
Startling also was Scott Pask’s sleek modern set, which disappeared piece by piece over the course of the evening. The gaps were imperceptible at first—a bookcase gone here, a table there. But by the play’s end, George and Martha’s home had crumbled from around them, replaced with an endless and overwhelming black void.
As for the show’s prospects of returning, a representative from the office of Barry Diller (who inherited shows once led by disgraced producer Scott Rudin), issued a curt reply to my inquiry: “There is no planned future production at this time.” Mantello’s production, with Metcalf’s towering work at its center—among the finest in her career—will now live on only in the memory of those nine preview audiences. It’s a theatre memory I thankfully can’t wash away.
The Most Spectacular Journey of James Ijames (and ‘Miz Martha Washington’)
For a playwright poised on the cusp of wider recognition just as COVID-19 hit the brakes, James Ijames has managed to make something of a splash over the past two years anyway. His historical satire The Most Spectacularly Lamentable Trial of Miz Martha Washington was in early rehearsals for a major production at Steppenwolf Theatre in early March 2020; though it had premiered at the Flashpoint Theatre in his hometown of Philadelphia in 2014, and had a few productions since, its Chicago premiere, directed by Whitney White, was certain to be a big deal.
When it was canceled due to the pandemic lockdown, Ijames barely skipped a beat, diving into his role as co-artistic of Philly’s Wilma Theater, which made a successful pivot to digital and audio plays. Indeed, the Wilma’s filmed staging of his own Southern-fried take on Hamlet, titled Fat Ham, was something of an online hit in the spring of 2021, garnering a New York Times Critic’s Pick. Not long after, he had another Critic’s Pick with the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival staging of Miz Martha, directed by Taylor Reynolds. Now he’s poised for his possibly biggest year ever: Fat Ham plays at New York’s Public Theater in May, and Steppenwolf has reinstated Miz Martha for a fall slot in its next season. (Ijames pauses to marvel at the thought of the play’s costumes and scenery sitting in storage since March 2020: “Wow…gosh.”)
Hudson Valley Shakes had been considering the play for a few years before 2021, says artistic director Davis McCallum (he/him), and though they conceivably could have licensed it before they knew about the Steppenwolf pause, McCallum says, “We were excited and honored to be able to include it in the 2021 season, both because it was our final season at Boscobel—a historic house museum that was built around the time the play is set—and as a part of the national reckoning around race and injustice.”
While Ijames’s play predates the summer of 2020 and the subsequent racial reckoning, he does concede that “the way people receive what I do has shifted. I’m curious about history and how it sort of has the ripple effect to the present, so there was a little bit of an uptick—like, I had a couple of productions of plays that are kind of unwieldy and people were like, ‘Yes, we want to do this right now!’ I think everyone was just trying to figure out how they want it to be in conversation with those issues and with our community.”
And though he says he’s generally “cautious—I’m always someone who is a little wary of too much exuberance about something,” Ijames feels like the theatre field is “turning a corner. I don’t think we’re going to be the same again. And I think that’s a good thing.” A heightened awareness of “the systemic problems in our industry—racism, patriarchy, the working conditions for artists of color, and artists in general—I think that’s something we’re leaving the pandemic with, and that’s going to make our industry a healthier industry to work in. I’m hoping that sticks, and we don’t forget these lessons that we’ve learned.”
From Outside Shot to Lay-Up: Candrice Jones’s ‘Flex’
“I don’t know any theatre artists who did not become busier during this time,” says playwright Candrice Jones, pacing quietly on a Zoom call through the rooms of a house in Little Rock, Ark., while cradling a sleeping baby on her chest. It’s not just the new life clinging to her body that has made the 24 months of pandemic lockdown so eventful for Jones: She’s back in her home state to prepare for the premiere of her play Flex at TheatreSquared (T2) in Fayetteville, Ark., June 29-July 24.
It has been a long journey with several detours. Flex—a story of internecine drama on a girls’ high school basketball team in the late 1990s, when the dawn of the WNBA raised the stakes for every young woman in the game—was supposed to have its world premiere in April 2020 as part of the Humana Festival of New American Plays at the Actors Theatre of Louisville. It rehearsed there for nearly a month and even had its set built and loaded into the Bingham Theatre, but never opened.
“Humana was supposed to be the great big splash, the opportunity of a lifetime,” Jones said. “And then it was: Hold it.”
Jones used the down time, she said, to build stronger relationships with theatres, including ATL, for whom she’s working on an interactive virtual project called Beyond the Crossroads, and Minneapolis’s Playwrights’ Center, whose support for her work she considers essential. And when TheatreSquared’s director of new-play development, Dexter J. Singleton (he/him), booked Flex into last summer’s Arkansas New Play Festival, it was a hit. “Our audiences loved it, our staff loved it,” Singleton said. “So it was a no-brainer to say, ‘Okay, let’s try to find a way that we can get it on the upcoming season.’”
T2’s production, billed as a co-world premiere with Atlanta’s Theatrical Outfit, where it will run in the fall, was also able to pick up some of the Actors Theatre team: The director, Delicia Sonnenberg (she/her), and more than half of the six-member cast are returning to the show, though the design team only has one overlap.
For her part, Sonnenberg, who did her share of virtual theatre and Zoom directing over the past two years, is excited to be returning Jones’s play in the flesh.
“The screen just can’t capture what we do live,” she said. She’s not only referring to the actual basketball staging that’s an integral part of Jones’s play. It’s also about a sense of place. As she puts it, “Flex is a love letter to the girls that Candice grew up with in her small town, and to the women of Arkansas, especially rural Arkansas.”
Sounds like a slam dunk.
The Continuing Saga of ‘Destiny of Desire’
After playing several regional theatres over the past 7 years or so, Karen Zacarías’s “Unapologetic Telenovela in Two Acts,” featuring switched-at-birth newborns, live music, and vibrant choreography, was destined for even bigger things in 2022. Her Destiny of Desire was scheduled to play at the Guthrie Theater from April 30 to June 5, in a production directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, then move on to a commercial Broadway run produced by the Foxboro Company. But this plan seems to have fallen victim to COVID-19’s late-breaking Omicron wave, and the Guthrie decided to cancel the ambitious production.
“Given the wave of performance cancellations across the country due to COVID-19,” said the Guthrie team in an official statement, “multiple Destiny of Desire artists faced delayed projects at other theatres, prompting scheduling conflicts for the Guthrie’s run…The Guthrie does not currently have plans to stage Destiny of Desire.” The announcement went on to note, however, that the theatre is continuing with a co-commission with Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park for Zacarías to work on an adaptation of the classic Western Shane.
Reached at her home in Washington, D.C., Zacarías calls the cancellation “a bump in the road.” The show, she says, “hasn’t changed its course per se.” She says that a number of regional theatres have reached out to Foxboro’s Nelle Nugent to offer Destiny a home, with the time and place yet to be decided. The plan is still to have a limited-run regional production, then move the show to New York.
The past two years have had their hard lessons, but the playwright says she is “sanguine.”
“I have never been done in New York,” she notes. “I have never had a show go toward a commercial production. So I’m learning as we go. With the pandemic, as you know, new ways of resilience keep coming up all the time.”
Qui Nguyen Wants to Make ‘Poor Yella Rednecks’ Worth the Wait
Playwright and screenwriter Qui Nguyen was at a creative crossroads of sorts in early 2020, but it was a happy intersection: It looked like he wouldn’t have to choose between his love of making theatre and his burgeoning film career. In February and March, he debuted a swashbuckling 17th-century action comedy Revenge Song at the Geffen Playhouse—the first show in years he’d made with the Vampire Cowboys, the collective with which he created such indie theatre classics as Alice in Slasherland and She Kills Monsters back in the early 2000s, and he was busily working on some top-secret writing projects for Disney.
Meanwhile Poor Yella Rednecks, the second installment of a family saga that had begun with his beguiling romp Vietgone, was slated to follow up its 2019 premiere at California’s South Coast Rep with a June 2020 run at Manhattan Theatre Club, where Vietgone had been a runaway hit in 2016. When the MTC run of Poor Yella was indefinitely postponed, and Nguyen was announced a few months later as a co-writer on the Disney animated film Raya and the Last Dragon, it seemed like the universe had made the choice for him: He would double down on writing for the screen, one medium that has thrived during pandemic isolation.
But, though Nguyen has another animated adventure film for Disney coming out in November 2022, Strange World, he tells me he’s still as much a stage creature as ever. While he says he cherishes the collaboration of a TV writers room and the “global reach” of film, he loves theatre “because it’s probably the most unfiltered version of me. It’s been said before, but no one pays playwrights enough to have their notes matter.”
Getting back to Poor Yella Rednecks is “just a timing issue,” he says, and so while MTC tells me they’re “committed” to producing the play in a future season—and presumably so are Oregon Shakespeare Festival and San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater, two other places it was slated for—Nguyen says comes down to when his calendar will allow him to be in rehearsal. “They want me to be involved, which is a great thing, because not all theatres feel that way. I would like to be involved; it’s important for me to be part of a series that is very important to me and my family.”
Family is another reason he’s still committed to the theatre: His wife, Abby Marcus, is managing director of Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, a job she first learned to do by producing Vampire Cowboys shows back in the day. “She loves theatre so purely that when I’m around her, it reminds me what makes that medium great,” Nguyen effuses.
Having many receptive artistic homes doesn’t hurt either: Geffen Playhouse and MTC have already co-commissioned a third installment of his family saga, and this summer Oregon Shakes will put Revenge Song—f-bombs, unabashed queer representation, and all—on its 1,143-seat outdoor Allen Elizabeth Stage.
“The homes that originally were just inviting me into their spaces are now inviting my company into their spaces,” Nguyen says. “When you bring my whole team in, it makes me more excited to work, because I get to work with the artists who allow me to be as mischievous as I was when I was 22, all these years later.”
The Ebb and Flow of PearlDamour’s ‘Ocean Filibuster’
Commissioned by the Harvard University Center for the Environment and the American Repertory Theater (ART) in late 2016, PearlDamour’s Ocean Filibuster has navigated choppy waters on its pandemic-delayed journey to the stage, but it finally premiered at the ART in person and in virtual formats on March 2; its in-person run continues through March 13, while it will be available to stream March 9-27, and an in-person national tour will follow.
Originally slated to premiere in March 2020, it had already been rescheduled to September of that year for non-pandemic reasons. Writer Lisa D’Amour—one half of the Obie-winning company PearlDamour, whose counterpart, Katie Pearl, directed the show—vividly describes the relief she felt in March 2020, when productions started getting canceled left and right. “Wow, we’re so lucky our show is in September,” she remembered thinking.
Numerous reschedules and cancellations later, including a final schedule change that necessitated delaying rehearsals and opening by a week, thus shaving a week off the run at the ART, D’Amour does ultimately feel that Ocean Filibuster is stronger for the additional developmental time it received. Over the intervening two years, D’Amour and Pearl consistently worked on the show, which explores the intimate, interconnected human-ocean relationship through an impassioned, musical debate between “Mr. Majority,” who is attempting to protect humanity by eradicating the ocean as we know it, and the Ocean, filibustering for its own survival.
Their process included intensive work with projection designer Tal Yarden over Zoom in January 2021—a partnership that was supposed to have been part of a Guggenheim Works in Process series in summer 2020. The new approach involved projecting Yarden’s video design onto a mini-model of the set. Meanwhile, the show’s interactive intermission experienced the most iterative change as the creative team kept adapting to what was possible according to COVID protocols. The current version creates a cabaret/party environment with actors onstage, Augmented Reality stations for further learning in the lobby, and audience members free to wander between the two.
D’Amour completed another draft of the script in 2021, incorporating new information from the overlapping social upheavals of Black Lives Matter and the increased national focus on climate change, bringing issues of environmental justice and racism to the fore. Said D’Amour, “The show has grown into this moment in this strange way. People are ready for the show in a way they weren’t before.”
Getting back into the rehearsal room came with additional stressors, including testing, masking, and adapting to shifting schedules and protocols, which has tried the team’s already diminished social and emotional bandwidth after the past two years. D’Amour feels more grateful than ever for the energy her collaborators bring to the room. Conversations during the pandemic about white supremacy and needless urgency led to a concerted effort to work with their stage manager, Lisa McGinn, to create a rehearsal environment with as little panic and rush as possible. As D’Amour said, “Life is precious, and we don’t want to lose the chance to be in the moment and be in process together.”
That’s a sentiment that lends itself equally to the vastness of our collective responsibility to our environment, and to our creative, collaborative potential as well.
By Any Medium Necessary: Mike Lew’s ‘Teenage Dick’
The regional life of Mike Lew’s dark comedy Teenage Dick, which premiered in 2018 at the New York City’s Public Theater, has faced a seemingly endless series of COVID-induced disruptions. But it also stands as evidence of theatre’s continued resilience amid an ever-shifting landscape.
Lew’s contemporary high school riff on Shakespeare’s Richard III was in rehearsals at Chicago’s Theatre Wit when the shutdown hit in March 2020. So the Chicago venue filmed their first and ultimately only performance, placing themselves among the first of many theatres to pivot to streaming. Dick was then set for a June 2020 run at Woolly Mammoth Theatre in Washington, D.C, a run that was also scuttled as the shutdown dragged on.
As live theatre returned last fall, Dick appeared primed for a comeback. Woolly Mammoth not only honored their commitment to the play, but partnered with the Huntington in Boston and Pasadena Playhouse for a three-stop tour. Moritz von Stuelpnagel’s original New York production was set to travel the country with original stars Gregg Mozgala and Shannon DeVido.
The show managed two of three stops before Omicron reared its head, and Pasadena Playhouse canceled its planned in-person February performances. Luckily, though, the production has been professionally filmed during its second stop at Huntington, which this season has pursued a hybrid in-person/streaming model. And thanks to the close cooperation among the three theatres, the Playhouse was able to offer the Huntington recording to its own patrons, Feb. 3-27.
“For this play in particular, the accessibility of having a streaming option is huge,” says Lew.
Lew considers himself fortunate to have completed creative work on Dick prior to the disruptions, and reserves his empathy for playwrights struggling to grow and develop new works in today’s uncertain climate.
“In terms of what I’m actively piecing through, I’ve moved on from [Dick],” he said. “But it’s harder than ever for emerging playwrights to get a berth anywhere. I’m feeling a lot of empathy for people a little bit behind me in their careers.”
‘Help’ Arrives 2 Years Late, and Always on Time
Director Taibi Magar was in the midst of what she recalls as “one of the most fulfilling theatrical processes of my entire life,” in which “the synergy among all of us in the room just had a great momentum.” She was staging Help, a hard-to-define new multidisciplinary piece by poet/essayist Claudia Rankine at the versatile venue The Shed in New York City, scheduled to open March 21, 2020.
A few tech previews is all that version of the show got, though an excerpt was incorporated into November, a short film by Philip Youmans, as Rankine (she/her) was particularly insistent that the show’s interrogation of white supremacy should find some expression in that fraught election year.
Now Help is back for a March 15-April 10 run, and, after the murder of George Floyd and the Jan. 6 insurrection, its investigation of America’s stubborn racial impasse would seem to have even more heightened significance. Have the events and discourse of the past few years reshaped the play’s content?
“It’s like the piece is an accordion,” says Rankine. “And the last two years have found their place inside the instrument of the play—they didn’t feel difficult to fold into what was already there. We already had the white supremacy, and now we have the white supremacists at the capital. We had the deaths, and now we have more. This piece opened out to receive them.”
How to describe the play itself? Inspired by an essay Rankine wrote for The New York Times about frustrating conversations she’d had with white men, Help in part stages some of those conversations, as well as many of the infuriatingly confused responses to her writing. Lead actor April Matthis (replacing Roslyn Ruff) sums up the play’s vantage point as “a Black woman’s gaze on whiteness,” and she describes Mimi Lien’s set, evocative of an airport waiting area, as “a holding pattern of where we are in history, of structural racism in this country, of the fraught relationship between African Americans and white people in this country. ‘How do you theatre that?’ has been kind of our task here.”
Shamel Pitts’s choreography is one answer. Rankine’s text itself is another key; as Matthis put it, the writer “takes language and makes it architectural, but also ephemeral and expansive.”
For her part, Rankine gives credit for the piece not only to the ensemble and the creative team but to a larger, harder-to-please collaborator. “I feel like Help is a play that America wrote.”
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